The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright – People claim that God is unchanging, but actually God has changed quite a bit over the ages. Well, the human conception of God has, anyway. This book describes the changing view of deities from ancient civilizations through the development of the Abrahamic religions, focusing on such elements as the triumph of monotheism in Israel and the contributions of Jesus and Muhammad. An important theme was that views of the divine changed due to what was happening in the world, with political and cultural shifts often altering religion. We learn about how Paul modified a minor Jewish sect into a cosmopolitan religion that reflected the needs of the vast Roman Empire, and Muhammad’s changing attitudes on violence and other religions as seen throughout the Quran. Also interesting is the author’s theology, which you might think from the examples I’ve given is totally atheist, but Wright actually comes across as a firm agnostic who refuses to take a side. He admits that he doesn’t know whether God exists, but suggests that, IF He does, the changes in religion have likely brought mankind closer to grasping His true nature. Also, the fact that our society has become global, and hence people often rely on followers of other religions, tolerance is not only increasingly possible, but necessary as well.
At one point, Wright quotes William James on the definition of religion, saying that one of the best ways to explain it is that it “consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” By this definition, people who believe in a supernatural order but don’t personify it or refer to it as “God” are still religious. I actually like this definition, but I’m not sure how well it would go over with the general public. It appears to be quite popular nowadays for people to insist that they’re spiritual rather than religious, and even some followers of specific religions argue that they’re not really religious because they’re not dogmatic about it, or something like that. As someone who considers myself genuinely not religious (which doesn’t mean all my beliefs are rational, mind you, but more that I think rational explanations are always POSSIBLE), I’m not sure how “religion” came to be a bad word. I tend to think belief in a cosmic order is religious, whether or not there’s a bearded man on a cloud involved. I guess this does leave the question as to whether people who think there’s an unseen order, but that it’s a BAD thing would be considered religious, but the question probably doesn’t arise under the vast majority of circumstances. I mean, nobody REALLY worships Cthulhu, do they?